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Converting Marcus Morris into a point power forward

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Can the former Piston be a playmaker on offense like Kelly Olynyk and defend wings like Jae Crowder?

NBA: Boston Celtics at Detroit Pistons Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

When the season starts in October, we’re all going to miss Avery Bradley. Avery was “our guy.” There will be games when DeMar DeRozan or Steph Curry or Bradley Beal go off for 50 in the Garden and we’ll all mutter under our breath, “if Avery was still here...” Those emotions might even turn ugly and all that ire and frustration will be misguidedly directed at Marcus Morris, the man Bradley was traded for just to get under the cap this summer.

But by December, I’ll bet Morris wins us over.

He won’t replace Bradley’s quiet roar or his production, but that trade will look less like a shrewd cap casualty and more and more like filling a position of need. Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier will all slot up in the depth chart after Bradley’s departure, but the Celtics weren’t deep in the front court. Outside of Al Horford, they didn’t return a single big.

Enter Marcus Morris.

Marcus is not his brother, Markieff. After a grueling seven game series, we’ve grown accustomed to (hate) Kieff’s rugged style. He’s more a bruiser as Washington’s power forward and doubles his brother’s possessions as a PnR roll man and in the post. Marcus, on the other hand, served as more of a swing small forward for SVG in Detroit with Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond in the paint. He ran pick-and-rolls as a ball-handling wing and a lot of isolation in the mid-range.

But don’t get hung up on labels. Marcus isn’t a finesse player. Just because he started at SF for the Pistons, the 6’9, 235-pound Marcus Morris can bang, especially on defense. NBAMath.com notes that Morris and his new teammate, Gordon Hayward, are two of only six players that provide a positive value added in all defended play types. Nobody’s Avery Bradley, but against bigger wings, Morris holds his own. Per ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh, Morris is one of the best defenders on LeBron James, allowing only 20.5 points per 100 possessions. That’s the lowest average against any defender in the league.

Morris will fit right in with the team’s “defense first” DNA, but his role on offense is still in question and there are some red flags. As CelticsHub’s Ryan Bernardino notes, Morris has gradually grown steadily dependent on his mid-range game for points:

For the analytics-minded Celtics, there are shots you want to take and there are shots you don’t. Morris takes the ones you don’t. Boston shot 6,978 field goals in the regular season; 3,073 were in the paint, 2,739 were beyond the arc, and only 1,163 were from mid-range.

Avery Bradley was Mr. Mid-Range, throwing up 218 shots. Al Horford comes in second at 210 and by virtue of minutes played, Isaiah Thomas shot 152. Different system, different coach, but here’s an eye-opener: Marcus Morris took a whopping 411 long-2’s last season in Detroit. That may seem like a lot and certainly not a fit for Brad Stevens, but Morris is one of the best from 15 feet. Of the 16 players that shot over 400 mid-range jumpers (a list that includes DeMar DeRozan, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and Kawhi Leonard), Morris ranks 5th in FG% at 45.5%.

For what it’s worth, Morris seemed to be the designated bad shot taker on the Pistons. Think of him as Midwest Marcus Smart. Of all the Pistons that weren’t point guards last year (Reggie Jackson, Ish Smith, Beno Udrih), Morris had the lowest percentage of assisted field goals in Detroit at 53%. And usually, a team’s star player will take most of the shots late in the 24-second clock. Not in Detroit. Morris led the Pistons in late in the shot clock (7-4 seconds) attempts with 111 and made a respectable 45%; by comparison, IT led the Celtics with 104 and shot 40.4%.

Because of his size, he’ll slot in defending bigs, but what can he do offensively? How does Stevens weaponize Morris’ mid-range game? My hope is that he can fill in as Kelly Olynyk’s replacement. When the Celtics go small with one in and four out, that big inside has to do a lot of different things and Olynyk was the best Horford substitute when Al wasn’t on the floor. He could stretch the floor, pass from the high post, drive, and kick. Think of that big as the spoke of a wheel; while ball handlers and wings and whipping around them, they have to be able to work in close quarters around the key.

For most of his career, that hasn’t necessarily been his game, but consider what system he’s been in over the last two seasons. Because of Harris and Drummond crowding the paint, he was the de facto small forward that was prohibited to penetrate because the spacing just wasn’t there. That will be different in Stevens’ pace-and-space offense.

In Zach Lowe’s piece, “How LeBron and Kyrie orchestrate the NBA’s scariest play,” he talks about how effective the 1-3 PnR is because with defenses switching everything, it’s one of the few mismatches that a team can exploit. I’m paraphrasing, but basically, teams will live with bigger post players backing down smaller guards in the post. Where it gets tricky is when stronger wing players like LeBron can go downhill on a smaller defender off a switch. Think LBJ and Kyrie forcing a switch with IT and Crowder.

Obviously, Morris isn’t on the level of LeBron, but he could be used in a similar way. Because he’s so effective in the mid-range, look for Stevens to get him the ball around the free throw line against a smaller defender or in space. That could mean forcing a switch with Kyrie’s defender in multiple PnRs or slipping a screen and catching the ball at the break.

He doesn’t have the downhill power or the cross court passing prowess of James, but he’s comfortable playing in tight spaces with his back to the basket or facing up. In Detroit, he was a willing playmaker and a fairly adept passer from the wing or in the post. To wit, he was second in assists to Andre Drummond, ahead of both point guards Ish Smith and Reggie Jackson.

Morris won’t erase the memories of Avery Bradley or Kelly Olynyk, but at $5M per over the next two seasons, he’ll be one of those low cost, blue collar type players that will help develop the younger players and do the dirty work for the marquee stars. Like Crowder, he’ll take his turn and defend the tough covers. When Big Al picks up a ticky tack fourth foul in the third quarter, he’ll slide down to the 4 and find Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum cutting from the wings. Marcus Morris has played like a Celtic for much of his career. Thankfully, he’s now in Boston.